Besides the full-length novels in the Vorkosigan Saga there is a number of novellas filling some gaps in the overall story and exploring those little corners in which important details are most likely to be found. Such is the case of The Mountains of Mourning, in my opinion the best of these shorter works.
Set some three years after the events in The Warrior Apprentice, it opens with Miles at home in the country residence at Vorkosigan Surleau: he’s just graduated from the Imperial Academy and is looking forward to his first assignment, hoping for a posting in space. The past three years might not have been easy on the young man, having to compete in an environment where the physical strength he lacks is valued more than the bright intelligence he possesses in spades, and there is a small scene in which all that frustration comes to the fore as Miles burns a ritual offering on his grandfather’s grave, asking the old man’s spirit if he’s satisfied now, if he can finally accept this grandson through his achievements if not for his appearance – it’s a poignant and powerful moment in which Miles lays bare the pain in his soul, without covering it with the usual self-deprecating humor.
All the chaos of the graduation ceremonies behind, all the mad efforts of the last three years, all the pain, came to this point; but the grave did not speak, did not say, Well done; you can stop now. The ashes spelled out no messages […]
There is no time to enjoy some well-deserved rest though, because Count Aral, Miles’ father, charges him with the duty of carrying out the law in what looks like a murder case, or rather an infanticide: a distraught woman from the hill district came to seek justice for her baby, born with a harelip and a cleft palate and therefore killed as a mutant, as is still the custom in the isolated areas of Barrayar. Tasking Miles with carrying out such justice, Aral intends to send a message together with the messenger, as Miles correctly muses, because if such barbarian rituals are to be eradicated it’s necessary for the people to understand that individuals with disabilities can still reach their full potential and must be given the opportunity to do so.
Of course it’s not an easy task for Miles, because he must maintain a level head in a situation that is both difficult and fraught with emotional overtones he has to keep firmly in check, but here we see a new facet of his personality, one that showcases his growing maturity and thoughtfulness against the happy-go-lucky attitude he kept in The Warrior Apprentice. His balancing act is a mirror of the changes Barrayar is undergoing, slowly but surely, and of the cultural dichotomy between the more advanced cities and the rural areas, where old superstitions and ways of thinking still rule.
If at first Miles is somewhat annoyed at having to spend part of his leave on this duty – and in consideration of his young age it’s understandable – he soon comes to empathize with baby Raina, the victim of infanticide, realizing that only by fortunate chance, the proverbial “there but for the grace of God”, he did not undergo the same fate. The moment in which he acknowledges Raina’s fragility and helplessness, is the one in which his resolution to deal justice in her name becomes paramount:
The twist, the muffled cartilaginous crack—if there was one thing Miles knew by heart, it was the exact tactile sensation of breaking bone, oh yes.
The somber tone of the story does not ease even after the guilty party is discovered and sentenced – and here Miles’ choice of punishment is both wise and merciless – because if the death of little Raina might have opened the path to more enlightened customs, the sad reality of her untimely, cruel end remains. Still, there is a glimmer of hope for the future, not only for these isolated, backward communities, but for Miles himself, that he might be accepted for what he is and not for the way he looks.
The Mountains of Mourning is more of an intimate, poignant story and something of a deviation from the usual trend of this series, but it’s this touching quality that truly makes it special.